"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

30 November 2014

The Suppliant Women, By Euripides

Theseus: Did you consult prophets, and observe altar-flames?
Adrastus: Alas, no; that was my error. You have found me out.
Theseus: You went, it seems, lacking the favour of the gods.
Adrastus: Worse still: Amphiaraus warned me, yet I went.
Theseus: Was it so light a matter to ignore the gods?
Adrastus: The young men clamoured at me, and I lost my head.
Theseus: You sacrificed sound judgement to bold enterprise.
Adrastus: A choice which has brought many a leader to his knees.

Theseus: Citizens
            Are of three orders. First, the rich; they are useless, and
            Insatiable for more wealth. Next, the very poor,
            The starving; these are dangerous; their chief motive is
            Envy – they shoot their malice at those better off,
            Swallowing the vicious lies of so-called champions.
            The middle order is the city’s life and health;
            They guard the frame and system which the state ordains.

Theseus: I claim the right to fulfil the law of all Hellas
            In burying those dead bodies. Wherein lies the offense?
            If you were injured by those Argives – they are dead.
            You fought your foes with glory to yourselves, and shame
            To them. That done, the score is paid. Permit their bodies
            To hide below ground,

Adrastus: O wretched race of mortals! Why must men get spears
            And spill each other’s blood? Stop! Lay this rage to rest;
            Live quiet with quiet neighbours, and preserve your towns.
            Life is a brief affair; such as it is, we should
            Seek to pass through it gently, not in stress and strain.

Although the title might suggest a connection with AeschylusThe Suppliants, EuripidesThe Suppliant Women is a very different play. This play is set in the interval between the events of the Seven Against Thebes and Antigone—between the Theban civil war pitting Poliniekes against Eteokles, and the later events that destroy Antigone, Haemon, and Creon. In The Suppliant Women, the widows of the seven Argive champions come with Adrastus—the Argive leader—to Athens to try and convince Theseus, the Athenian king, to demand the bodies of the Argive dead for burial. Initially Theseus is reluctant because he (apparently, though I don’t know if this is covered in any other play) thought the Argive campaign against Thebes was a terrible idea, especially when he finds out Adrastus didn’t consult any prophets or make sacrifices to the gods or anything. But then Theseus is convinced that allowing the Thebans to deny burial to the Argive champions will be detrimental to all of Hellas, and that he will be remembered for turning down the request of supplicants.

These two issues are pretty important fare for Attic tragedians—the importance of burial and the rights of supplicants. Burial is a central concern here, much as it is in plays like Antigone. For the Greeks burial was a crucial ritual because it insured that 1) your spirit would actually make it to the afterlife properly, and 2) you would be remembered. Of course, burial for the Greeks wasn’t a one shot deal, it involved a duty for the living to offer sacrifices, libations, and to perform rituals periodically as a way of showing respect and maintaining the legacy of their ancestors, which we see in plays like The Libation Bearers. Greek culture was not an ancestor cult, but it did have elements of ancestor worship, with individual heroes and rulers often being compared to their ancestors. And of course, burying the deceased was important if you wanted to be buried properly yourself—of course, these two things don’t have a direct connection, but this was a component of the culture.

We also see supplication central here. Supplication was a big part of Greek culture, as was the duty of hosts. We see supplicants in (obviously) The Supplicants, but also in plays like Oedipus at Kolonus or Andromache. I think supplication and hospitality laws were two sides of the same coin, because travelling in the classical world could be extremely dangerous (this was before hotels existed in every town), so being able to come to someone’s house and have a reasonable assurance that they wouldn’t kill you in your sleep was a pretty useful cultural innovation. Similarly, being able to appeal to a powerful monarch or ruler or whatever when you were in need was good, because it helps lay the foundation for a social contract and reciprocity. And when you’ve got a god like Zeus who takes care of the interests of suppliants, it’s generally wise to extent your hospitality and assistance.

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